What We Went Through Right after Chris Burns Went on the Run from His 10 Million Dollar Ponzi Scheme

Eating out on Friday night with our family, Gavin wasn’t able to look any of us in the eyes. He sat with his head on the table resting on his crossed arms. He wasn’t talking–just a warm body sitting at the end; no real life exuding from his growing frame. I assumed he didn’t feel good because he’s quiet when he doesn’t feel good. The rest of us continued to move rapidly through conversation about our day when suddenly he got up and ran to the bathroom. As if he had the power of telepathy, Philip quickly jumped down from his high-top chair and followed Gavin into the bathroom. They both came back to the table within a few minutes, and Philip mouthed to me that Gavin was trying to keep himself from having a panic attack. 

“Gavin, are you okay?” I asked.

“I don’t want to talk about it.” There was a quiet rage mixed with an endless pain.

“Okay, I don’t know what’s going on, but we’re here and we love you” I voiced for all of us.

What I had failed to remember and plan for was that this was one of our favorite BBQ joints when we were a family of five. We had been there many Friday nights before life dropped out from underneath us, and this was our first time back. More than that, there was a man with a gentle voice singing live classic rock hits. His voice sounded so kind, as he sang “Rock me mama like a wagon wheel, Rock me mama any way you feel/ Hey… mama rock me.” 

That song was played on every road trip of our lives, but especially every road trip of the boys’ lives with Chris. Did you know one of the lyrics in the song says, “Lost my money playin’ poker, so I had to leave town…and if I died in Raleigh, at least I will die free.” Gavin felt every memory of every word that kind voice was singing, and it brought up some of Gavin’s deepest suffering–in the flash of a moment. By the end of dinner, Gavin told us all–this place, that song–it overwhelmed his senses and his memories. The daily ache had finally built up enough pressure to explode through his heartbeat while he searched to pull air into his lungs staring at a grimy floor surrounded by urinals.

Why does the agony always surprise us at the most unreasonable times and places. Why does it take us days to figure out how to voice what has happened in a heartbeat.

After Chris first left, it took me three months to be able to listen to any type of music. It was like my ears were wired too closely to my brain, and any loud noises or emotive sounds could send me over the edge into a wailing crying. Silence was my refuge because whispered melodies sounded like someone beating on the center of my chest. I imagine myself as a body full of static electricity–and all the usual sensory experiences shocked my body over and over and over again. It’s a part of trauma. I couldn’t swallow food; I tried to drink soup. I got down to a hundred and seven pounds. My intestines just stopped working along with the rest of my senses.

My eyes filled with tears with every genuine kindness from friends who filled in so many gaps, and my eyes spilled over every time I put daily federal documents or recently served civil suit documentation into the pile overflowing my kitchen countertop. I wore sunglasses inside the house some days. I’m not sure there was a moment for at least three months straight where I didn’t have that flu-like ache behind my eyes–it was one constant in my life, something predictable. 

I could only wear T-shirt bras, T-shirts, sweatpants, and tennis shoes–anything to find some sort of comfort for the skin I just wanted to crawl out of. Each day there was the question of whether or not I could get into a car. I was almost always driven by someone else…but the enclosure of sitting in the passenger seat at times felt impossible, like a prison cell–enclosed spaces tormented me, but I was also terrified to be out in the world in any capacity on my own–even my backyard. I knew people were watching me–some of the victims let me know right away that they were keeping tabs, every movement.

I had to pull the boat out of the lake per the SEC’s requirements. Within hours of doing it– forcing my body to follow instructions that almost killed me inside because leaving the home, letting the kids out of my sight,  brought me close to a breakdown every time–I got a text that said, “Would it be okay if I came over and took my boat for a spin?? We’re the victims, not you!” How much of a threat is a threat. Are my kids safe. Who are his victims? How angry are they? How far are they willing to go with their anger?

How does a brain manage when it never feels safe–when you can’t confirm within your own reality if your children are safe or in danger. What about Chris? Was he a threat? Was he involved with people who might be a threat? Did he run away from people who would hurt us to find him? Was this why we had individual security guards for over eight months the year before? Who broke into our house? Who keyed my car in our driveway? The entire universe felt deadly dangerous. 

There were also the “good guys.” Was the FBI going to indict me? Was the SEC going to say I was involved? Would my kids eventually lose both of their parents? Even if we moved, were we ever going to be safe, to feel safe?

What parameters do I analyze to explain to myself how much fear to let myself feel. Should it stay the same every day, does it change? Does the Corvette sitting at the top of the driveway for over half an hour change my fear thermometer when it peels out as I walk up to it with my phone’s video camera on?

 Every sensibility was driving down the highway at a hundred miles per hour with cut brake lines, swerving frenetically to stay out of harm’s way.

All moving was fast and furious. As we bagged up Chris’ clothes, the smell nauseated my digestive system. His tobacco-based cologne filled the air as I went through a loved one’s clothes as if they had died–except he hadn’t. If he wasn’t dead, what was I supposed to do with his stuff? How do you know what to do; more than that, how do you know what you want to do. To get rid of it all away felt like signing the death certificate. To keep it was to believe a lie and hold on to it just a little bit longer–but how long can lies sustain you emotionally.

Each shirt or suit jacket was a memory, a placeholder of both a person and a time alive in my memories…in my knowing. The placeholders created a hologram of a man who was wearing that very shirt only a few weeks before, rushing out the door in the morning throwing on the plaid suit jacket to make it to his first meeting on time, spraying the cologne onto his collar and into his broad chest once he was sitting at a stoplight.

The extreme sensations I consistently experienced in my body are reflected in the questions that pop up like paparazzi flashes in my mind. They’re too bright, too many, I never know when they will jump out at me, and they overwhelm at a cellular level. Did someone else love this smell as much as I did? Did they love that shirt on him, the one I bought for him? Did he pull it off in front of her? Did she move in close to hear his heartbeat and breathe him in? Did she feel the same kind of complete abandonment holding him and smelling him and hearing his voice as my heart had experienced throughout my seven thousand nine hundred and two days of my marriage?

How did I not see it? How was my vision so blind? Surely I felt it in my heart? Did I feel it in his touch, hear it in his voice, did I miss something he said, did I let the smell of alcohol mask the perfumes and colognes attached to his late nights? 

Back to packing. I’m still standing in the middle of his clothes, some bagged, most still hanging. My eyes fixated on a row of polo shirts. The more I stare, the more they begin looking blurry; I want them to remain static, but my mind creates an earthquake that my body can’t fight. As I look at the shirts they are moving even though my gaze is steady; my legs are trying to keep me balanced, but the floor is destabilized and I am having trouble staying upright. I was off-balance trying to steady myself. I reach back into my mind and hear an echo of Bono’s voice “I’m at a place called Vertigo. It’s everything I wish I didn’t know.”

It felt like my sternum was broken by compressions trying to bring me back to life. Or maybe it was more like I was alive on the autopsy table with a saw cutting open my breastbone to see if my heart was still beating. In those moments of decision, in those first few weeks, I rushed around with this body, but I was offering up my heart to death’s door–I was sure that the suffering was too much for any one muscle to keep initiating a pulse. 

I had to at least put the clothes, and his books, and his shoes, and his wedding ring in storage to keep my senses from short-circuiting. Out of sight out of mind. Or at least, it took the intensity down one degree for a few months while I moved us. But, eventually removing his things only amplified the fact that he was actually removed from our family.

Sometimes a total absence of all the things related to that person actually magnifies what is lost.

Around January, I was finally able to listen to sad music. It helped pull the sorrow out of my cells. I could only listen to three songs over and over–one of them was by Taylor Swift. She had a song that actually lined up with my timeline, and like a child, I believed she must have written this song for me. Maybe her voice was gentle enough, maybe the chord structure had just enough melancholy, maybe it was because it starts with simple minor piano notes….when I listened to it, I was able to hear for the first time and begin to stop the electroshock of sensory experiences.

Gavin recovered from his panic attack; it took a few days of talking through it, and I’m sure it will come again. The last few nights, we’ve each had at least one nightmare where Chris is trying to talk us into believing him, trusting him. We eventually get around to telling one other person in the family about it within two or three days–it’s too raw to recount it the morning of. 

But then there are days like today, I wake up to a familiar feeling, “Why does the agony always surprise at the most unreasonable times and places,” namely today, a normal Tuesday in November.  I didn’t let myself listen to music until I was alone in the house this evening and able to write. I knew it was coming, my own emotional explosion. The music opened faucets for my eyes, and I grieved openly, weeping, typing, remembering, allowing the electricity to surge through my senses until my eyes burned, my back hunched over– my head on the table resting on my crossed arms. Maybe I’ll be able to talk about it in a few days.

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